The Swiss love running. Almost one in ten people runs regularly and the big races attract record numbers of participants every year. This worldwide phenomenon is particularly extreme in Switzerland. swissinfo.ch runs with the pack to find out why.
“If someone had told me in 1982 that the number of participants would increase tenfold in 30 years, I wouldn’t have taken them seriously,” Heinz Schild told swissinfo.ch. Schild is the founder of the Bern Grand Prix, an annual running event that takes place at the beginning of May. The ten-mile run (16km) has become the country’s biggest running event, with 30,000 runners.
“It was simply unimaginable,” said Markus Ryffel, winner of the first Grand Prix in 1982 (as well as in the years 1985, 1986 and 1989), and 5,000-metre silver medal winner in the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984. Just 2,991 runners lined up for the inaugural Grand Prix, dubbed “the most beautiful ten miles in the world”. The route leads through Bern’s historic Old Town – on Unesco’s list of world heritage sites – and along the River Aare.
Other big amateur running events in Switzerland are experiencing a similar development. Every year brings a new record number of participants.
“This phenomenon can be seen internationally. Just 127 people took part in the first New York marathon. In 2013 it was more than 50,000,” Schild said. The Swiss running pioneer helped bring the young Ryffel top-ranking world success as a long-distance runner.
Fabien Ohl, professor at the Institute for Sports Science at the University of Lausanne, maintains that street running – outside of sports stadiums – developed in the 1970s “in a societal context, marked by anti-institutional behaviour and disinterest on the part of sporting associations for this hardly-regulated sport.”
In Switzerland street running has experienced an exceptional boom. “If I had to put together a ranking list for participation rates in this kind of running, Switzerland would most likely come out on top,” said Schild, who keeps detailed statistics of the world’s most important races.
In 2013, 232,771 people took part in Switzerland’s 20 main races. “Overall you can estimate that 400,000 people are registered for the 700 to 800 races that take place annually in Switzerland. Some 700,000 people run regularly. In the 1980s there were about 50 races – very few with more than 1,000 participants,” Schild added.
The large number of running events in Switzerland could lead one to believe that these are a lucrative activity for organisers.
“Unfortunately that is not the case, you can’t make money from running,” Heinz Schild said.
Without sponsors, volunteers and the support of the authorities, it would be almost impossible to avoid going into the red.
“In sports where there is no television presence – and therefore no TV rights at stake – there is no money to be made,” Markus Ryffel said. His company Ryffel Running, organises the Bern Women’s Race and the International Greifensee race run but not to make money. They do it because it can have a positive impact on other business areas, such as the sale of accessories such as shoes and clothing.
Ryffel remembers how runners were seen as aliens in the 1970s and 1980s. “People looked at us with pity. In the meantime this has changed to admiration.”
One key driver behind this is health awareness. The increasing amount of leisure time, as well as the lack of physical activity at work also play a role. But there is another factor as well.
“The subjective recognition of running has fundamentally changed. In the 1960s running was a purely physical act. Asceticism ruled. Running was associated with suffering and victimhood. From the 1970s on body consciousness grew. Running became a good deed. One ran to feel good,” Ohl said.
Which is why is it of course important to listen to the body’s signals, to undertake clinical tests. Such analysis is especially important after the age of 35, “when cardio-vascular diseases can appear,” as Lukas Trachsel of the cardiology department of Bern University Hospital explains in this video.
An individual sport?
“In our times of almost total mobility, where we can go almost anywhere in a short time for little money, running is a way of returning to our own roots,” Ryffel said. “To take part in a race also offers an exceptional collective experience.”
But is running not actually an individual sport? “Our society shows a trend towards individualisation and running goes with this trend very well. But it is not necessarily an individual sport, as the success of running events shows,” Ohl said.
“Social connections are also built up around a sporting event,” the sociologist said. “You can run alone, with friends, as a couple or with family.
Everyone runs in their own rhythm. Even when there is a ranking list, participants set their own goals. Some might want to be placed in the first 1,000 runners, other wish to do a marathon in under four hours. In sports like football it’s different, because there is always, in principle, a winner and a loser.
Women step up
The running boom is also thanks to the rapid growth in female participation, according to Schild. Up until a few short decades ago, long-distance running was solely a male preserve.
“When Marijke Moser ran the Murten Race, a few metres from the finish line she was taken out of the race by the organisers and whisked away,” Schild recalls. Moser had completed the 17-kilometre race between Murten and Fribourg “illegally” because she entered under a man’s name.
In fact it was 1977 before women were officially allowed to take part in the race. The first women’s Olympic marathon held in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Since then the proportion of women has constantly risen. Schild would not be surprised if more women than men soon took part in popular races. It has already happened in some competitions.
It is much harder to win young people over. “There are always lots of children, but then the participation in the 15-30 age groups falls right back,” Schild said. The same applies to many other sports, especially individual sports.
To attract participants from this age group, some organisers have devised new forms of popular races, for example the Survival Run, a 16-km run in Thun, in which runners have to overcome several obstacles and tend to arrive at the finish line covered in mud and dirt.
“The average age in the Bern Grand Prix is 45, while the average age in the Survival Run is 29,” said Ryffel, whose company Ryffel Running organises the Thun adventure event.
However most people usually return to traditional running. Schild, who is now 72 years old, sees running as an activity “that you can practice for your whole life, even at an advanced age”. He is far from hanging up his own running shoes.
The Murten race (Murtenlauf) is the oldest popular race in Switzerland. The route goes from Murten to Fribourg and was first run in 1933. It commemorates the victory of Swiss forces against Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, in 1476 in the Battle of Murten when one of the victorious soldiers ran the 17 kilometres to Fribourg to spread the good news, carrying the branch of a lime tree he had taken from the battlefield. The first race was won by Alexandre Zosso from Basel, one of only 14 runners taking part. In 2013, 11,000 people ran the race.
The longest and toughest
The 100km of Biel is the longest and easily the most difficult race in Switzerland. This year saw the 56th competition, which mostly takes place at night. In 2013, 801 men and 153 women reached the finish line. The record for completing the distance is held by Swiss Walter Jenni who did it in 6 hours, 49 minutes and 43 seconds in 2008.
Another contender for toughest race in Switzerland is the Swiss Alpine marathon in Davos. The longest part of this competition in Engadine covers 78 kilometres, climbing 2,260 metres in altitude. The course record holder is the Russian Grigori Mursin with a time of 5 hours, 42 minutes and 32 seconds (2002).
The most beautiful
It’s not easy to agree on a ranking for the most beautiful race, based as it is on subjective criteria. swissinfo.ch has opted for the Jungfrau marathon, due to the spectacular panorama of the three peaks – Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. It begins in Interlaken and ends 1,823 metres higher up in the shade of the most famous mountain of the Bernese Oberland. The American running magazine Marathon called this race the world’s most beautiful. The race was set up by Heinz Schild in 1993.
The most female
Only women can take part in the Women’s Race of Bern, first introduced in 1987. The 2013 race had a record number of runners – more than 15,000 women lined up on the day. This year there were 14,917.
(Translated by Clare O’Dea)